- Elvis Costello, seen here in his quizzical phase.
With a talent for wordplay and an appreciation for the long history of pop music (his dad was a bandleader), Costello's proven an adaptable songwriter, whether digging into delta R&B with Allen Toussaint, as he did with his latest, The River in Reverse, or going country with some of Elvis Presley's old sidemen, as he did on perhaps his best album, 1986's King of America.
To make sense of Costello's 30 years of music, it helps to break them into four distinct phases:
Stardom, 1977-1982 -- Onetime computer programmer Declan McManus took his nerdy black frames and morphed into malevolent alter-ego Elvis Costello, jumping aboard the punk bandwagon. He says he went out and bought albums by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, then threw out all but the most jagged songs he'd written. During this era, Costello's music focused largely on emotional power struggles, with him usually assuming the role of the downtrodden wimp.
From his stunning debut, My Aim Is True, backed by Clover (later Huey Lewis' band), to the explosive follow-up, This Year's Model, through his sonic and lyrical tour de force Imperial Bedroom, this was Costello's best and most commercial stretch, all backed by his crack band, the Attractions. Signature Track: "Beyond Belief."
Exploration, 1983-1994 -- A middling period in Costello's career, this stretch was marked by experimentation, much of it uneven. By the time of Imperial Bedroom -- which was written on piano, though he can barely play -- Costello was frustrated with the rock idiom. After the two worst albums of his career (the overproduced and aptly titled Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World), he rebounded in '86 with the '60s-inflected Blood & Chocolate and country-flavored King of America.
The year before they came out, he'd divorced his wife after starting an affair with Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler's mother, and he later married Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues. His increasingly baroque next two albums, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, offered a number of good songs but lacked focus. Albums with a string quartet (Juliet Letters) and the Attractions (Brutal Youth) closed the era with more of a whimper than a bang. Signature Track: "Brilliant Mistake."
Quiescence, 1995-2001 -- After his return to the Attractions, Costello didn't do much of anything: an album of covers recorded years prior (Kojak Variety), an album of songs he wrote for others (All This Useless Beauty), and the terrific Painted From Memory, on which he collaborated with Burt Bacharach. During this time, Costello played with noted jazz musician Bill Frisell, served as artist-in-residence at UCLA, and wrote music for a ballet -- good indications he'd given up professional pop music. Signature Track: "God Give Me Strength."
Prodigal Returns, 2002-2006 -- There was no reason to believe Costello would return to form. It'd been 15 years since his last great album. But in 2002, Costello came out with When I Was Cruel, backed by the Imposters (two-thirds of the Attractions, minus the bitching bassist). That same year, he split with O'Riordan. In May 2003, he announced his engagement to jazz musician Diana Krall and recorded an album of piano ballads, an underrated gem that set the stage for the even better Delivery Man. Recorded in 2004 in Mississippi and backed by the Imposters, it reaffirmed Costello's love of country music, this time of the country-blues variety. A sizzling album, it was followed by his latest with Toussaint, which continues to explore American roots, tracing a New Orleans R&B tributary, and demonstrating that it isn't time to "put out the big light," on Costello just yet. Signature Track: "The River in Reverse."